- Kamakshi Tandon
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Alone and no longer at the top -- that's how defending champion Novak Djokovic seems to be feeling at this year's Australian Open.
When he swings his racket, the new frame feels awkward. When he looks up at his box, his family is absent. When he gives interviews, he is told that Andy Murray is the favorite.
Even his staunch Serbian supporters in Melbourne have been causing a headache, taking part in ethnic clashes that have lead to Djokovic's facing uncomfortable questions about whether he was willing to explicitly condemn the violence (he didn't).
No wonder he appealed to the crowd after his third-round win. "I feel very challenged to have the role of defending champion in a Grand Slam, it's something I've never done before," said Djokovic. "A little more support, please!"
While some players draw strength from a me-against-the-world attitude, Djokovic rises to the occasion when he feels a tide of support behind him.
He felt at home here last year, staying at a Melbourne apartment with his parents and two younger brothers, who showed up for his matches wearing T-shirts that spelled out his nickname "Nole."
This time, his parents are at home in Serbia and Djokovic is living the usual lifestyle of a touring pro.
His coach, Marian Vajda, admits the atmosphere is a little different this year. "We cannot compare; it was really, really big support of his family -- that's what he likes most," said Vajda.
Djokovic's parents elected to stay home to organize the family's newly acquired ATP event in Belgrade in May, according to Vajda, though there are rumors there may be more to it than that.
The coach downplayed the effect of their absence. "He didn't complain of this, that he miss them or he need extra support," said Vajda. "He has to get used to it. Not every time they can come on the Grand Slams. So he has to take it in a positive way."
Djokovic has also lost a little of last year's relationship with the public. In 2008, he was one of the tournament darlings, a charismatic young star on the rise who had captivated U.S. Open watchers with his spot-on imitations of Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal.
This year, it is his standoff with the U.S. Open night crowd that jumps most easily to the memory. Boos rained down on the Serb after he said the fans were "already against me because they think I'm faking everything" -- a reference to Andy Roddick's earlier sarcasm about the number of injuries Djokovic seemed to be carrying.
Djokovic later described it as "the worst moment of [his] career," but admitted this week that it had been a valuable experience. "It's a good lesson for me," he said. "There are some moments in our careers when the emotions are too big. Then you react a way you shouldn't and you don't think rationally, which sometimes happens. But we learn from our mistakes."
Djokovic can be sure he will not have the crowd on his side during his next match -- 2006 finalist Marcos Baghdatis is popular with the Melbourne fans, and his loyal band of Greek and Cypriot supporters will dominate the cheering.
Another challenge facing the defending champion in Melbourne is his change of rackets during the offseason. It takes time to get the feel of a new frame, which must also be tweaked to a player's satisfaction. The strings on Djokovic's new Head frame, for example, are strung more tightly than with the old Wilson.
"As the third player of the world, of course the defending champion here, it was a pretty risky move," Djokovic admitted. "But I already decided to do that, so I take the responsibility and I just move on."
Why did he abandon the racket that took him to No. 3 in the world?
"The reward is simple: It's green and it lines your pockets," said James Blake, who went through a difficult racket transition when he signed with Prince in 2005 before returning to Dunlop two years later.
Vajda believes that the switch will turn out to be good in the long run, adding power to Djokovic's game. "He's still adjusting a little bit but [once] he's fully adjusted, I would [say] his game is more powerful and the racket helps him."
For now, however, it is just one more thing to deal with, and Vajda admits that his pupil isn't always having a blast on the circuit these days. "It's still fun," Vajda said, but added, "OK, you can see a little dark side of the moon sometimes -- or 'mood,' I would say. But it comes from the pressure."
Djokovic made an excellent start to 2008, winning the Australian Open, Indian Wells and the Rome Masters in the first half of the year. Then, with a chance to move up to No. 2, he began to feel the pressure and was not quite the same again after consecutive defeats to Nadal during the clay season. He did not win another big title until the Masters Cup in Shanghai (his girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, made the trip).
In Melbourne, there has been less attention on him than on the likes of Nadal, Murray and Roger Federer. Being an invisible No. 3 has left Djokovic frustrated.
"He's focused on his goal, and his goal is No. 1," said Vajda. "Sometimes he's impatient, thinking it's too long, not [coming] as fast as it should. But I think his time is coming and he doesn't have to be worried about it."
Djokovic appeared offended when it was suggested that Murray has taken his place as the "third man" in tennis.
"What's his ranking and my ranking?" he demanded, before adding, "[Andy has] done a lot in the last couple months, and he's a very talented player and we can expect him to win some Grand Slams in the future. But you cannot put him as the favorite next to Roger and Rafa and myself here at Australian Open."
But can Djokovic still win big on "the dark side of the moon"? That is what he must prove this fortnight, and until he does, the doubters will remain.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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